'Climax' Review: This Is One Hell of a Dance Party
Two things are deeply rooted in human psyche: Dance, and a crippling fear of death. In French filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s new horror film Climax, the two become one in an arresting, utterly disturbing, at times frustrating descent into one hell of a party.
Directed by Argentinian-born, French-raised Noé in a style reminiscent of his 2009 surrealist fantasy Enter the Void, Climax is a horror story that swaps film fundamentals for bold ideas (the entire credits roll at the beginning of the movie) and a banging electronic soundtrack (Daft Punk, Giorgio Moroder, and Aphex Twin heard in the same movie — what a world). Equal parts art house and grindhouse, Climax is a mesmerizing merry-go-round of misery that sees Robert Wiene’s expressionism form an unholy union with The Human Centipede. It’s a great movie, truly. It’s also just one I am unwilling to ever watch again.
In Climax, an exhausted dance troupe led by Selva (Sofia Boutella, clearly comfortable in her old element as a former professional dancer) rehearse late into the night and party their fatigue away with music and sangria, unaware their drinks have been spiked with some gnarly LSD.
Immediately, paranoia sets in, and while the movie briefly turns into a whodunnit, it is ultimately a survival horror story as the characters struggle to just deal while they’ve lost all control of themselves.
There is no capital-P Plot to Climax: People do drugs, freak out, some have sex, and some die. That’s not a movie, that’s a weekend at Burning Man. But under Noé’s deft directing, Climax soars above its pretentiousness and delivers on its premise: That humans are their own worst enemy.
While Climax certainly feels destined to become the new favorite of film school edgelords, it is still a startling piece of phantasmagoria that will also please A24’s target crowd.
Noé made a horror movie, but a nightmare on Elm Street this ain’t. In his movie’s abandoned school building set in a ‘90s French winter, the scary things are normal people who are forgetful, anxious, envious, sometimes overly gossipy. Mix in alcohol, drugs, and lowered inhibitions, and bad things happen. I don’t know if Noé actually believes that all people are inherently evil and are only kept from acting upon evil desires because of an artificially sober consciousness, but Climax sure makes it seem like he does.
Before the terror begins, Noé spends a generous amount of time introducing his characters — a key tactic that pays off in big ways. Not all their names stick, but through behavior and some specific desires, we come to know what’s at stake, and Noé pays off the anticipation in some of the film’s most consequential events, including death.
This is also, perhaps, the most frustrating thing about the movie. The amount of time Climax spends with its characters pre-sangria (and hell, during sangria; the LSD takes awhile to kick in) means it’s a movie that rewards patience. Like dropping acid, the wait is necessary to feel the magic.
Noé has a secret weapon in Climax, and it’s something his characters don’t have in the thick of their high: perspective. At a moment’s notice, Noe forcefully turns his audience from omniscient observers watching from above into subjective guests, as if we ourselves navigate the dance floor, gossiping with this horny troupe after drinking the sangria. Like the DJ’s playlist that that bleeds songs into each other, we’re never really sure where things begin and end.
In the midst of horror’s current renaissance party, with new masterpieces like Get Out, Hereditary, and A Quiet Place commanding the dance floor, Noé has dropped in with a uniquely French banger. Both surreal as any drug-induced high and sobering as the morning after, Noé’s new nightmare isn’t just about what people do when they’ve lost control. It’s about what people do when there’s no control left.
Climax will be released in theaters on March 1.